Geopolitical Role of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean

Highlights of a speech by Cyprus Foreign Minister Mr. Nikos Christodoulides at the AJC Transatlantic Institute, Brussels.

It is this unique geographical position of Cyprus, at the south-eastern-most corner of the European Union, at the cross roads of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, which has to a very large extent defined the history of Cyprus. And while more often than not our geography has been more of a curse than a blessing, our determined efforts in the last few years have been to reverse this narrative, and turn our geographical position into a blessing, putting it at the forefront of our geostrategic value.

The Eastern Mediterranean is important for the European Union and the international community for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that addressing the challenges in this region, holds the key to addressing many of the root causes of the challenges the EU and the international community faces.

Cyprus’s status as an EU member state as well as its excellent, long-standing relations with its neighbours are also vital in understanding the importance of Cyprus’s geostrategic role.

Regional stability

Let us tackle the regional stability pillar, a necessary prerequisite to any form of prosperous development of the region, and in many ways the key to effectively addressing many of the challenges the Union and the international community have to resolve. For example, at Foreign Affairs Councils agendas issues such as migration have featured prominently in the last years and have at times threatened the unity and cohesion of the Union. Where do the root causes of the humanitarian migration crisis the EU stem from? We cannot answer this question unless we also turn our attention to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Recognising the importance of regional stability, Cyprus has worked with Greece and others in the region, such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians in creating trilateral cooperation mechanisms.

The trilateral mechanisms are arguably one of the most successful additions to Cyprus’s foreign policy footprint, and a manifestation of our strategy to create synergies and forge closer cooperation with moderate countries of the region. To date, we have had five Summits with Egypt, four with Israel, the inaugural Summit with Jordan in Nicosia in January, and preparations are underway for Summits with Lebanon and Palestine.

 This innovative trilateral mechanism is now common place, and the meetings are taking place at regular intervals, creating and facilitating synergies in a broad range of areas: from economic cooperation to culture and education.

The central tenets of the trilateral cooperation is that they are neither exclusionary nor exclusive, nor are they directed against any third country, but are an instrument for promoting cooperation. Here too it is important to understand that by their very nature, there is no “one size fits all” framework but are moulded and evolve in areas where there is a comparative advantage, including broadening the trilateral format to bringing in additional partners in specific fields. For example, Cyprus, Greece and Israel, have expanded their talks to include Italy and the European Commission in our discussions of cooperation on energy related issues.

The benefits from these regional developments bear fruits not only for the countries in the region, but also for the European Union. The Union must seize the moment and reap these benefits. As I have mentioned recent crises that have emerged for the Union – such as migration – go back to these region, and solutions can only stem if the Union not only looks inwards but also outwards.  

HYDROCARBONS

The discovery of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is also one of the core pillars of the trilateral cooperation mechanisms, has opened new horizons in our bilateral relations with Israel, Egypt and other countries in the region, but also for the European Union.

Much has been said and written on the energy potential of the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, according to the USA Geological Survey assessments the Eastern Mediterranean region (the Nile Delta Basin and the Levantine Basin) holds enormous quantities of natural gas and oil. Essentially, discoveries of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean hold the potential of providing for our countries sufficient and stable energy supplies in natural gas at affordable prices, and to contribute towards the transformation of the Eastern Mediterranean into an area of sustainable and balance economic development.  

Perhaps the most important step was undertaken with the conclusion of three Agreements – with Egypt, Israel and Lebanon – delimiting our respective Exclusive Economic Zones, in line with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The delimitation of our Exclusive Economic Zones, by agreement, created a new regional dynamic. First, it created greater transparency based on international law. Second, it created a new economic border structure. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it set up a new framework for dialogue around a concrete shared goal. This new diplomatic framework was the natural stepping stone to the trilateral cooperation mechanisms.

At the same time, this framework, created the necessary legal and institutional structure, at the national and international levels, which could attract major oil and gas companies to invest and do business within Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone. And it has clearly worked. Major international oil and gas companies such as EXXONMOBIL, ENI, TOTAL, NOBLE, SHELL, to name a few, have signed Production Sharing Contracts with the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, are present in Cyprus’ EEZ and carry out exploratory drillings and development activities. Their presence and operations in Cyprus’ maritime zones are a vote of confidence both to the prospects of new hydrocarbon discoveries and to the Government of the Republic of Cyprus itself.

We are also close to concluding agreements for the export of natural gas from the Aphrodite reservoir in Cyprus EEZ to Egypt and the LNG plants there, as well as to concluding a Cyprus – Egypt Intergovernmental Agreement for a direct underwater pipeline that would carry Aphrodite’s natural gas to Egypt. 

Cyprus has adopted the view that hydrocarbons can become the new coal and steel, in a new regional context. A tool of cooperation and synergies that would create an economy of scale, an inviting environment for companies and investors; a tool that would meet the energy security needs of the region and that of the EU and gradually contribute to greater stability in relations among countries of the region and promote security and peace. And ultimately, why not, a catalyst for greater, more institutionalized political co-operation in the region.

Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons are also expected to contribute to the implementation of the European Union’s policy of diversification of sources and routes. Towards this end, we are actively working on a project of European interest: The East Med Pipeline Project. This is a project adopted as a Project of Common Interest by the European Commission that has financed its feasibility studies. It provides for the transfer of natural gas, by an underwater pipeline, from Israel and Cyprus to Greece, via Crete, and from Greece to Italy. The aim is to have an Agreement signed by these four partners by the end of the year.